Understated Classics #20: Folklore by Nelly Furtado

It’s rather spooky but shortly after deciding to write about Nelly Furtado’s “Folklore” as the next understated classic, I found out that she has a new album out this week. As a result, I have been listening to a lot of her music while writing this post, and I’ve been enjoying it too.

As always with these choices of mine, “Folklore” is a record that I can link to particular events and emotions in my life and so I guess my perception of it is coloured by that. Nevertheless while re-listening to the album I tried to examine whether my feelings for it were entirely centred on those memories and emotional responses. I think the answer is not a simple one, because in recent weeks I’ve felt very unsettled in many aspects of my life and so I probably have found it difficult to tell.

I think that there are songs and ideas on this album that do stand the test of time, songs that we can go back to and say “yes, these are really good”, even if none of them make it into the “The Best Of Nelly Furtado Minimix” that can be found on spotify (as a mix, it’s hilariously bad):

The album starts with “One Trick Pony” (“for you I will not dance and for you I will not prance”) and despite protestations to the contrary, she picks up from where “Whoah Nelly” left off with a glossy pop song and a positive vibe. It’s all banjos and finger picking before her wonderful soaraway voice takes up the chorus. The lyrics are about being strong and unique, and yet it has the same wistfulness that permeates through the whole album, something that is no doubt carried over from her Portuguese heritage (I often wonder if my own lusophilia started here).

“Powerless” picks up a similar mood and revisits that theme of identity and uniqueness from a different angle, namely the way that people are presented to the world in videos and magazines. If you think about how things like Facebook can make us feel like there is some great current to our lives that we have to go on with, this song explores the question of whether we should live the life that others expect of us, or do we live as we want to, as we feel we should. I can remember being galvanised many times by the line “because this life is too short to live it just for you”, even when the person I was thinking about was very much someone that I did just to live my life solely for. It’s strange now because it is “just a pop song” and I can sit there and think about how the banjo lines are almost the same as the previous track, but back then it seemed really important because it connected so well to the things that were preoccupying my thoughts.

I feel less of a connection to the next song “Explode” but not because it isn’t heartfelt or because it doesn’t stir me, it is probably the most intensely personal song on the album, even if the events related in it might be fictional. It’s a song that looks back on teenage life and how the importance of things that happened in the past seem to change over time (“more than a battle scar / more than a battle scar / such a good good story to tell”). It helps that her pronunciation of “explode” makes that word sound like “explored” because that captures the duality of our teenage years very aptly, that simultaneous explosion into and exploration of the world around us. The ending (starting at “we’re counting the stars”) always gives me shivers.

The lead off single “Try” is probably the best song here, a love song about how perfection is not the most important thing in a relationship but that wanting the best for each other is. As a piece of pop ballad construction, it’s immaculate (complete with woozy “Mezzanine”-esque scratching), and if that maelstrom of an ending (including the lines “All of the things we want each other to be / We never will be / But that’s wonderful, that’s life”) doesn’t cut you up then maybe pop music isn’t really for you.

Another nice thing about Nelly’s albums is that she includes some tracks in Portuguese (albeit she sang in Spanish on “Loose” and there’s nothing like that on the new album, but a Portuguese language album is apparently in the works). The two tracks like that on “Folklore” are “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Força”. Admittedly the first song only has a few lines in Portuguese at the end of the track and the second song only has a verse or two in Portuguese. “Força” was the theme song to Euro 2004, which was held in Portugal, but as with all these songs the references to football are rather forced and the song is a bit dreary. “Fresh Off The Boat” is at least an attempt to do something a little bit different and the attempt to address casual racism is a worthy one but apart from the sing-song lines in Portuguese, the elements don’t really stack up for me. (Perhaps I’m just being tetchy because I still can’t quite translate all of the lyrics, I should jfgi.)

The album is very much front-loaded (I tend to prefer albums this way) and so by halfway through the real peaks have passed. Nevertheless side two begins with three very decent tracks. “The Grass Is Green” is a simple ballad and, given the title, you probably could have written the lyrics but the quality is all in the delivery. As always, it is that voice that strains and soars into the choruses from out of the verses. The same is true of “Picture Perfect”, like “Explode” it wears personal experiences on its sleeve but unlike most ballads it doesn’t descend into histrionics. There’s a real and convincing sense of sadness and regret throughout and the musical arrangement is tidy, pretty but not fussy.

More remarkable is “Saturdays”, which starts out as a sung poem backed up by acoustic guitar but later on a backing vocalist joins in and his enthusiasm threatens to overtake the whole song. At one point they start laughing and so you can tell that it is all done in one take. The lyrics are much darker and more mysterious than anything else on the album so although the zany one-take version is excellent, I can’t help but be curious about what it might have developed into if the recording on the album is, as I suspect, a demo.

The rest of the album does tail away quite rapidly. “Build You Up” sits too close in the track list to “Grass Is Green” and “Picture Perfect” so it sounds a bit samey if you listen to the album in order, though it does stand out better on shuffle. “Island Of Wonder” features legendary singer Caetano Veloso and has a smoky trip-hop vibe, which is nice but not particularly remarkable. “Childhood Dreams” is rather gloopy and overlong, doing badly everything that “Picture Perfect” does well.

Other albums

Thanks to Spotify I finally managed to listen to Nelly’s 2009 Spanish language album “Mi Plan” and I really enjoyed it. It was much more like “Folklore” than it’s scattershot follow up “Loose”. For me the standout tracks were “Manos Al Aire” and “Baja Otra Luz”. I’d write a more detailed review but I only understood about 30% of the lyrics.

“Loose” hasn’t got any better with age. It basically fuses two ideas, namely “I can write half decent songs” and “Let’s go hip-hop!”, and then proceeds to cock up both. Nevertheless there’s still some good stuff: “Afraid”, “Promiscuous”, “In God’s Hands” and “All Good Things”.

I will write about the new album in the album digest at the end of the month. It’s more like “Loose” than “Folklore” but it is a bit more cohesive. More info to follow.

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· Music, Understated Classics, Nelly Furtado, Twelve, Pop

⇠ Album Digest, August 2012

Programming a Carcassonne Game ⇢